A new arms race?

23 December 2016   
A new arms race?

Along the campaign trail, Donald Trump seemed to take the issue of nuclear proliferation and deterrence policy very lightly. He once asked intelligence briefers why the United States did not simply use nuclear weapons more frequently to advance its interests across the globe. He then said that Japan and South Korea should enhance their nuclear capabilities in order to serve as a deterrent to North Korea’s anti-West rhetoric and actions. This line of thinking worried pundits and experts on both sides of the political aisle, as Trump continued to pat himself on the back for being an outsider with little formal knowledge of Washington dealings yet continued to show, time and time again, just how dangerous that dearth of experience could be in the context of international wars between nuclear-capable nations.

Some suspected that Trump would take a more professional, diplomatic tone upon securing the White House. Perhaps he would pay attention in his intelligence briefings; perhaps he would come to understand the overwhelming power enshrined in his new position. Those who held out hope have been proven wrong. Very wrong.

There were reports of Trump taking only a single intelligence briefing each week upon winning the election, breaking decades of precedent. He violated U.S. diplomatic policy by conversing with the president of Taiwan then complicated U.S. relations with India by engaging with the president of Pakistan. In his latest Twitter diatribe, however, Trump has really flown his true colors, insinuating that he intends to reverse U.S. anti-nuclear proliferation policy by engaging in an all-out arms race with Russia.

Vladimir Putin delivered a speech to Russian military leaders on Thursday, arguing that Russia needed to advance its nuclear capabilities at all costs. He called for technologies and weapons that could “reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.” The systems to which he is referring, of course, are U.S. missile defense technologies that are equipped to shoot down nuclear-armed rockets. Once the details of this message were made public, Trump took to Twitter to respond to Putin’s speech. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” he wrote on Twitter.

In a later interview with MSNBC, Trump furthered his comments by saying, “let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” There is no beating around the bush here: Trump is preparing for a large-scale nuclear arms race with the Russians.

His aides, however, have spun the comment in another direction, aiming to depict Trump’s statement in a drastically different light. The incoming White House communications director said that Trump was referring to “the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it — particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes.”

The New York Times finds that “with his Twitter post on nuclear arms, it remained unclear from his use of the word “expand” whether Mr. Trump would try to reverse agreements such as the New Start treaty, which Russia and the United States signed in 2010 and which commits both nations to modest reductions in strategic nuclear forces.”

Even as pundits debate Trump’s comment, however, it is clear that there are already substantial consequences stemming from the message. According to Global Zero, an organization aiming to eliminate nuclear weapons outright, Trump’s tweet depicts the development of a “new nuclear arms race.” Both the United States and Russia have been modernizing their nuclear arsenals for years, making smaller, more efficient technologies with greater precision and diminished detection prospects. More specifically, the U.S. has been developing a system of missile defenses in Europe, which has created tension between the Pentagon and the Kremlin. Trump’s tweet seems to indicate that he will continue to advance U.S. nuclear capabilities, potentially even undoing the anti-proliferation frameworks set in place by previous administrations.

What do you think about this potential arms race?